{nat’l poetry month: poetry friday bonus}

2014 Benicia 004

Not really warm enough to eat outside yet, no matter how sunny it looks.

flirtation al fresco

relish the rustle –
crisp linen slides. Barely brushed
silken skin shivers

Crockett 14 HDR

stored up
perhaps moth and rust
are the least of concerns, on
hills made for rolling

Crockett 47 HDR


past orderly lines
and outside of boundaries
the wind entices

{clothing character: reflections on literary couture}

Occasionally I mess about with the New York Times for reasons other than to feed a rising dismay at the amount of the crossword I’m unable to complete. This week I looked through the online offerings at their craft of writing page, Draft , and read with my usual jaundiced writer’s eye. It was, of course, well-reasoned, tidy little piece – what in the Times wouldn’t be? – but I read it with the sense of dislocation that I often have when reading about adult writing.

old school typewriter I

I admit, since grad school, I no longer read much writing that is strictly literary fiction, aimed not just at adults, but educated adults with long attention spans and linguistic ability. I gratefully released Ian McEwan back into the wild, shoved Vladmir Nabokov under the bus, and showed V.S. Naipaul the door. (I kept some, like Barbara Kingsolver, Marianne Robinson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie and A.M. Homes, lest you think me a total Philistine.) (HM. I just realized that I kicked out the men, and kept the women. This was unintentional. I think? I was mostly fine with the depressive, atmospheric Naipaul until he decided that women weren’t his literary equal, the toffee-nosed git.) I took up with low company, with science fiction writers and spinners of fantasy, and I took up with those who wrote for “lesser” readers, that is, for young adults. So, often what I read in shiny publications is not for me – I know that. And yet? Young adult fiction is statistically the strong, flowering branch of the publication tree, really and truly bearing fruit. What I read critically about writing should be about young adult literature as well. But, I digress.

This week’s Draft was about, interestingly, clothes. Clothes in classic literary fiction have always been a huge thing — you get an immediate sense of who a character is, and where they stand, based on their couture. The author points out how well Fitzgerald used this conceit in THE GREAT GATSBY, how Homer had Paris show up with the skin of a leopard over his shoulders in The Iliad, and how Jacob, gifting his son a many-hued coat, really should have sprung for at least new jeans for all the others.

I appreciated cultural critic Lee Siegel reminding me of various outfits worn by various characters, but I found some points jarring. When the author compares the classic Gatsby of 1925 with a central character in Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, he kind of loses me.

Gatsby is wearing the novel’s themes: white as the fantasy of self-remaking without the blemishes of the past; silver and gold the currency-tinged colors of an impossible happiness. Egan’s character is simply wearing clothes.

Well, to be blunt, I don’t buy that. If you’ve read A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, it’s clear the basic black/white of Egan’s character says something about that character, too. After all, the Goon Squad is representative of time, in this collection of linked short stories. The characters, with ferocious intellect, massive talent, money, everything — NONE of them can stand against the goon squad. The black/white simple outfit, rather than just being “clothes” says something about the pared down defense that a human being can mount against the unassailable. You can’t dress for success against time – so you put on the uniform and just do what you can.

Siegel goes on:

Clothes have become more like costumes, intended more to hide than reveal who we are, or who we would like to be. An eclectic, basic, affordable style allows the super-rich to conceal their soaring exclusivity and to mimic humble circumstances, while it permits the rapidly contracting classes below them to camouflage their precarious status. The result is a place somewhere in between: a middle-class style without an actual middle class.

But, to a certain extent in modern society, isn’t this always the way it has been? The only reason – THE ONLY REASON – writers have name-dropped clothing brands and stuff into narrative has been to imply class – whether actual social class or the “aspirational” class of a poorer character. In the “chick lit” barrage of the 90’s and early “oughts” where everyone and his purse-sized terrier dropped Louboutin or Manalo, those labels meant less than nothing – except that some ridiculously cookie-cutter editorial assistant (weren’t they all???) was unwisely spending the paycheck that barely kept her housed in some cruddy little flat on aspirational crap – pretending to be someone she was not, in hopes that she looked the part enough to get the part someday.

More Siegel:

After all, we live amid a ceaseless torrent not just of new images, but of ones that have been computer-generated, mashed up and photoshopped. Appearances are no longer merely deceiving. They are increasingly worthless.

…which I think is a fascinating, fascinating thing to say about characters in literary fiction. We’ve been so visually manipulated that appearances are worthless. And, Siegel goes on to say, that the hunger in adult lit for the stripped-down, personal narrative is rising higher than the appetite for fiction. This to him is telling. Yet, in YA lit, the discussion about the need for more diverse images surges on – this is DEFINITELY a very telling difference between young adult and adult literature: we’re not shutting down the usefulness of appearances. We’re BEGGING for more to look at that reflects our real world, while adult fiction is withdrawing, perhaps, from the external world into the interior world – where maybe YA lit has been all along.


Something to think about.

{heart of your matter; matters of your heart}

I don’t remember where I got this, but I love it.

In grad school, my critique partner, J-Dawg (a petite, Caucasian, blue-eyed blonde who named herself thus), commented that every writer writes the same thing. Whilst at Mills, J chaired the first Aphra Behn conference, edited an anthology called “Scandalosissima Scoundrelia:’ A Collection of Critical Essays on Mary Delarivier Manley”, and her graduate thesis was something to do with the voices of 18th century women. I sensed a theme early on. It didn’t matter what class she was in, what paper she was writing, somehow, someway, J’s work ALWAYS came around to the writings of subversive women; or to make you all wince, Chicks Acting Up (Well-behaved women rarely make history, right?). “Every writer has a theme,” J-Dawg told me. I had no idea what mine was.

Fast forward to SAM mentioning once that I wrote like Joyce Carol Oates. “That’s a good thing!” he responded to my stricken silence. “Um… great!” I replied brightly, trying to remember what books I’d read of hers past ORDINARY PEOPLE when I was about ten (did I even finish?). I wondered if today’s teens had even ever heard of her. (Probably. BIG MOUTH & UGLY GIRL and AFTER THE WRECK weren’t that long ago.) I had no idea what my agent meant, and became somewhat obsessed with not fulfilling his prophesy – which is completely counter to what editors and publishing houses infer that you should do. Writers are supposed to have a brand, a market, a niche. A THING they do. I didn’t want to do a THING. I didn’t want to write like Joyce Carol Oates – awesome though she might be. I wanted to be free to do what I wanted. This silly supposition that I was supposed to be able to just write what came into my head is the sort of thing that gives marketing people migraines. And yet: marketing isn’t an exact science, is it? Maybe what I wanted to write next was going to be The Next Big Thing. I felt I was doing myself favors by not having a single thing that I did – I wanted to remain open to the possibility of doing it all.

Yeah. Like that works.

This morning I read a Cynsations interview on that very thing. Instead of calling it a theme, Janet S. Fox calls it a “core emotion.” And she agrees: every writer has one. The trick is finding yours.

Why? Because if you can find your core emotion, you can find your life’s thesis, as it were; your reason for writing. So many of us are utterly inarticulate as to the reasons why we’re doing this. The YA lit field is PACKED, stuffed. Why are we writing? Who needs one more book about, even one not about sparkly, emo vampires or zombies or fallen angels or, or, or — ? How can we justify our need to put ink to paper and scribble to the world if we don’t know exactly what it is we’re dying to say? (Because, as Charles Bukowski reminds us, unless it comes out of our souls like a rocket, and we absolutely cannot not say it, we should not speak.)

So, I looked at every book I’ve ever done – the two which are out of print, the more recent three with Knopf – and found they have a common theme. From summer camps to the ETO to Spring Break, every one of my novels has been about relationships. Tangled ones, romantic ones, familial ones, failed ones. This, I think, is what SAM picked up on – JCO is famous for depicting the fractured family. I can live with that, I thought. However, I read a review of HAPPY FAMILIES this week in Bookslut (thanks, Colleen!) which suddenly brought things into focus. Colleen writes:

“…Ysabel and Justin manage to get their parents to get real. It’s this focus on the damage to the family that makes Happy Families really succeed — Davis sees that with all the questions about what transgender means (and those questions are excellently explored), the real core to this novel is that the children were lied to. This is the essence to all of the novels in this column — in one way or another, the parents have failed their children, and in every instance they have insisted that failure did not take place. While some of them feel very badly — particularly in Happy Families — and while some are just complete asses — see Dora — the drama of each novel all comes around to the teenagers demanding fair and worthy attention from the people who are supposed to love them most. It doesn’t work out for all of these families; some are just too damaged to save, but in each case there are moments of amazing honesty in which the kids realize that they deserve to stand up and be heard; they deserve respect. For Ysabel and Justin, that moment is a good one, a not quite happily-ever-after-one, but at least a moment that shows them the way forward.

People who know me, or who get to know me find out in due time that I am not a liar (not a good one, anyway. I tell outrageous lies for fun, and watch people laugh). I am a storyteller – I believe in the power of fiction instead of lies – but I am also straightforward to the point, at times, of making myself and others uncomfortable. I do not respond well to lies. There is only one person I can think of, off the top of my head, who is still my friend after a lie, and there are extremely extraordinary circumstances involved. I have zero tolerance for liars and lying. It has been that way since I was a child and woke up to the lies I was told. Since then, it has been my personal mission to napalm out of existence all lies told to me… and the lies I have lived.

And within this epiphany, I begin to glimpse a theme… a core story. The lies our families tell (sit venia parentum), the lies with which we grow up, which are written on our bodies and secreted in the folds of our brains; the lies which are within the silence that we keep about the ways we’ve had to live, have had to compromise; the lies that inform our identity and shape us, and leave us rootless when we discover the truth… these are my heart matters, my core emotions. This informs my work: characters struggling to rip their way through what they thought they knew, into a world where what they hold within is ALL that is true.

Now, all I have to do is hold onto my truth, and hold it up, until I truly see it, and… well, then, everything should resolve itself from there.

…this is my hope, anyway; that all I will see is my truth, that all will see my truth. That the rocket will trail a light that rivals the sun.

{that intelligent librarian, Lizzy Burns}

“…ignorance and innocence are not identical…keeping teens from the books that will help them with difficult things under the belief that this makes the difficult things never happen does more damage than good. I’m also of the belief that once it’s decided that certain things should not be spoken aloud — incest, abuse, suicide — and not included in books, it makes it that much harder for those teens who do experience those things in life, either directly or indirectly, and people end up thinking that those people who experience those things should likewise be hidden. Not talked about except in a whisper.”

What are we talking about here? Wellll, the Wall Street Journal has discovered the Breaking News that there are Dark Topics covered in books for children and young adults. And such eeeevil is being force-fed to some imaginary children somewhere, and coarse writers, booksellers, reviewers and publishers – who are okay with bad words, vampires/self-mutilation, and probably child murder – are to blame.

Well, gee.

It seems like every six minutes someone who doesn’t actually read enough sets out to speak to a topic. I know, I know — it happens in schools all the time when students write papers. But, see, they’re not getting paid, they’re merely getting graded, and we’re not a captive audience to their nonsense (and their teachers hopefully can cure them of their bad habits). When someone is getting paid to espouse an opinion in a publication, I do wish they would check facts and try to present a balanced article. Our national conversation is so taken up with inflaming rhetoric that people have ceased to think, and merely hurl invective for entertainment. It’s ugly and unnecessary, so I shall set aside my tendency towards sarcasm and ask you to go and look at Liz’s piece in the School Library Journal about this, read, think and respond. The above quote is going to be on my email for awhile, because I agree strongly: pretending that reality doesn’t exist has never yet changed it.

Here’s to writing about reality, and helping literature continue to be both window and mirror – showing us what other people have survived, or maybe telling us that we, too can survive ourselves.

{cosmic notations}

Periodically, my life enters the Twilight Zone. Or, in this case, the Goldilocks Zone.

You’ve heard about it, by now. The planet twenty lightyears away, which has a good potential for human habitation. One paper described it as the “Goldilocks” planet — not too hot, not too cold, just right to support life.

The Gliese star has been known for awhile; NASA identified it way back in 2007 or earlier. The big news now is that they found a planet orbiting the star that is tidally locked to the sun (weird to think of galactic, system-wide tides!) — one side always in the light, one side always in the dark, and the strip down the middle – a temperate zone habitable by humans. Just like the moon only shows one face to the Earth, the little planet will always show one face to the star.

This is good news. Especially since I picked Gliese 581c out of NASA’s website as a place to base a fictional Earth colony I started writing about in December of 2008. It seemed like a reasonably close place for humanity to explore and colonize after the Moon.

I have written sixty thousand words on this story since January… getting to know all about that red star, and imagining what life would be like with a pink sky. And eventually, we might know.

The coincidence both thrills and amazes me …and slightly freaks me out.

{three steps forward, two steps back}


Because my writing group “meets” on Friday, Monday is one of the more difficult work days for me, at least when my work is up for critique. I set things aside for the weekend, but know that Monday means reading through line edits and commentary from my compatriots, and seeing through their eyes where I’ve fallen short in what I’m endeavoring to portray.

This past Friday there were so many questions asked about the political and military systems in my science fiction novel that I’m actually kind of dreading getting to work. Part of the problem is that my readers are reading the story episodically, only a few chapters a month, with long pauses in between — and the other issue is that not all of them are sci-fi geeks like I am. Their questions are good ones, but I am beginning to seriously question my own storytelling ability if they can’t tell a space station from a planet. (Granted: the activity thus far is all taking place indoors, not out on any planet surface, so they can be excused for being confused, but…) As always happens when I start wondering about myself, whispery, niggling questions become fifty foot speakers blaring doubts into my subconscious: You should probably just stick to historical fiction or something – it’s what people like from you. You can’t really write science fiction anyway — I mean, that’s not really an African American thing. Have you ever noticed there’s only one leading brown person cast per show on Star Trek? (Think about that, peeps – Originals to NextGen all the way through to DS9.) African Americans don’t even do steampunk. Why are you going where you’re not wanted? What do you know about science and technology and robotics? Your fight scenes are totally implausible, and no one will want to read this novel.

Welcome to the killing fields that reside in my brain.

It’s amazing how simple questions can just throw you – and throw you hard. Geez, it’s just a tiny thing, but it makes me want to sit down like a toddler in the middle of the mall, say “NO” and not go any further. What’s wrong with me? I don’t know what to say except that the minute I start asking myself stupid stuff like this, I know I have to push through. I know I’m doing something different and novel and unusual for me, which means there’s an opportunity for growth and innovation and to change the minds of people who actually think the way my mental ghetto does — and I want to take that opportunity.

I have a good writing group. Tech Boy has promised to read for me later this week. So, I really should be getting on with things, right?

I will. In a minute. First, though, I’m in the mood for some Milay.


I must not die of pity; I must live;
Grow strong. not sicken; eat, digest my food,
That it may build me, and in doing good
To blood and bone, broaden the sensitive
Fastidious pale perception: we contrive
Lean comfort for the starving, who intrude
Upon them with our pots of pity; brewed
From stronger meat must be the broth we give.
Blue, bright September day, with here and there
On the green hills a maple turning red,
And white clouds racing in the windy air!-
If I would help the weak, I must be fed
In wit and purpose, pour away despair
And rinse the cup, eat happiness like bread.

~Edna St. Vincent Millay

I’m kicking over the cup of despair and dumping it on the stairs. Enough with the pity party; on with the work.

Woodlands 36 HDR

Keep climbing.

{odds & ends and a heavy bucket of thoughts}

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, and who is going to make amends.”
                                                     ~ Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

And the real truth is, wherever you go, there you are.

Greetings from the Writing Bunker! I’m pulling ahead with my middle grade WIP, and having fun with it, and still pondering how to get everyone out of the jams I put them into in my YA SFF novel. It’s a lot harder than I thought, to have High Adventure going on. People spend a lot of time being chased and running away, I notice.

Dundee 258

You might notice that I have a “in case you need book report fodder” note on the right hand side of the page now. That’s because I’ve been asked for another interview, and one of the interviewers first questions was, “What are your books, and what are they about?”


No, seriously. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, to avoid feeling humiliated and/or taking a flamethrower to well-meaning but basically disinterested people who have been assigned to interview me, I’ve gathered some information to which I will point those kinds of interviewers so they don’t have to actually talk to me, if they’re inventive. I think I can safely declare us charter members of a newly formed Mutual Disinterest Society.


In mid-July there was a lot of chatter going on – at least on this side of the pond – about a series of books written by Enid Blyton. The publishers and the estate of Enid Blyton are going to update the language in the books from Archaic British English to Modern British English, in hopes of exciting a few more readers and widening the readership of a series of books, most of which were first published in the 1940’s, and contain pejorative phrases like “dirty tinker” to describe travelers or gypsy people, and “an awful swotter” to describe someone who liked to study and read.

Dundee 245

The furor was distressing to me, because so many people raved about “preserving” this series, and the language of the time, and how awful it was that the books were losing their special, uniquely British touch to be bowdlerized into the ordinary and the average. While I understood the preservationist point of view, and the fact that the books reflect the values, language and social mores of a bygone era, and that Children Should Be Made to Read Up, and Great Literature Ought Not To Be Brought Down To The Common Level, the fact remains: living, breathing kids in the now could use more good books (and I view Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, with its racist, sexist and classicist language as “good books” with only the most skeptical eyes) to read, and the publisher, of course, wants to make more money, as do Enid’s heirs.

The mindset of “children should read up” reared its ugly head again recently when I read a discussion of The Novel: An Alternate History – Beginnings to 1600, by Steven Moore. This is a massive and allegedly scholarly tome, being deconstructed by a thoughtful, well-spoken woman, but the book itself and her subsequent blog post is not the point — what the author says in his introduction is what struck me.

“Do you want to know a secret?”
“Literature is not for everyone… when it comes to fiction, there’s a democratic assumption that anyone with a basic education should be able to read and enjoy any novel… Hence some feel it is reprehensible to write a novel beyond a high school reading age. … Why this bleeding-heart concern for ‘the mass of readers’, ‘the common reader’? They have more than enough to satisfy them, as the best-seller lists indicate; most of the publishing industry caters to their tastes. Why this intolerance for the minority of readers with a different textual orientation who prefer an alternative kind of fiction… Such fiction is challenging and unconventional, granted, but the fact that it’s not for everyone doesn’t make it elitist, snobbish, pretentious, arrogant, or wrong-headed. It’s simply not for everyone.”

Dundee 241 HDR

That really both blew me away, and really grieved me all at once, because I AM that “everyone” who was not raised and polished to special literate status, who didn’t study Greek mythology or Roman Classics or histories or Shakespeare, even, until college, or anything which would have propelled me along toward the shining towers of the Ivy Leagues. I AM that everyone, that nobody to whom Moore directs this, sneaking around the edges of what Other People read and thought, and how Other People lived, and sampling bits and pieces of that through literature.

How else was I supposed to become? And he thinks to criticize me for being the common reader!? Really? If you are not tied with a silver bib and fed Plutarch with a platinum spoon, how else are you supposed to arrive at these Big and Lofty Thoughts and ideals he espouses as especially for that “minority of readers”?

Perhaps what bothers me more is that there are people who found his statements obnoxious on the surface, but somehow true at heart. They felt critical of his tone, but indicated that literature which “pandered” to our “escapist childhood instincts” should really be avoided, and that we are a world of indiscriminate readers who need to elevate and raise ourselves, or else we get what we deserve in this world — the low, the inauthentic, the common and the trashy.

Or, you know, popular culture.

Read UP, children of the world! Be better than you are, be more worthy of the literature you’re supposed to love…

Mr. Moore attempts to justify the deliberate manufacture of a work which is only accessible to a few, not to make the work better, but simply to engage in an exercise of writing which somehow says that the people who read the work are better. This, to me, is “elitist, snobbish, pretentious, arrogant, or wrong-headed.”

Dundee 243 HDR

Imagine that the language being discussed in these works wasn’t the language of archaic Britain, and wasn’t language “beyond a high school reading age,” but was something like African American Vernacular English – or as it was called when I was an undergrad Black American English, or BAE. It’s not for everybody, certainly. Nobody panders to people who would read works written in dialectical English primarily used by inner city African Americans, certainly not the mainstream publishers. Would people be concerned about preserving a work (by not altering it), if it were written in “ebonics?” (Remember all the hysteria over that?) Would they find the work “elitist, snobbish, pretentious, arrogant, or wrong-headed?” Would they feel the need to defend the language used?


Something to think about this breezy Wednesday morn. Or not. This one might give you a headache.

Poetry Friday: Courage


Courage is the price that Life exacts for granting peace.

The soul that knows it not, knows no release

From little things.

Knows not the livid loneliness of fear

Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear

The sound of wings.

How can Life grant us boon of living, compensate

For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate

Unless we dare

The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay

With courage to behold resistless day

And count it fair.

— Amelia Earhart, 1927

appeared in Survey magazine

July 1, 1928 p. 60

Cross-posted at Finding Wonderland. Poetry Friday is at Mommy’s Favorite Children’s Books.

What You See Is –?

“What you see is what you get.” It’s a phrase that means that what you’re looking at is all that’s there — you can take it for its face value.

Is that ever true of a person?

Soprano Anne Wiggins Brown was born on August 9, 1912, in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the great-granddaughter of a slave. Her ethnic background was a jumble of Cherokee, Creole, Scottish and African, and her first love was music. She and her three sisters sang and were involved in musical theater in their segregated neighborhood.

There wasn’t any future in that, however, for an African-American, and so after getting turned down for music schools in the area, Anne went to teacher’s college. But she still loved music, and took voice lessons with a woman from Julliard, the famous music school. Anne became the first African American to win Julliard’s prestigious Margaret McGill scholarship, and she was in.

Do I need to tell you that she had a chance to audition for Ira Gershwin? And she was given a part in a jazz musical called Porgy, but because of her input the name was later changed to Porgy & Bess — because she was such an amazing Bess?

Yet, Anne wasn’t allowed to perform in some theaters — and she, in turn, refused to perform in theaters which were segregated. She finally went overseas in 1946, like so many other famous African American artists and musicians. It was just too hard to stay in her own country.

In Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl, Ida Mae didn’t ever stop being an African American, but she chose to live as a Caucasian person, in order to be treated as part of her own country. To her mind, what was seen wasn’t worth more than the truth, but what people saw was able to give her what she wanted, in part.

What’s worth passing for? What’s not? Read our conversation with author Sherri L. Smith, and drop us a comment.

Also, if you’re not stopping by The Brown Bookshelf this month, you’re missing some great authors and illustrators. Today, check out Nicole Tadgell, who recently illustrated the picture book No Mush Today.

Guest Blogger Sherri L. Smith: On Passing & Identity

Today we welcome back young adult writer Sherri L. Smith to Finding Wonderland! Sherri is the author of Lucy the Giant, a novel about a tall girl from the immense state of Alaska who tries to lose herself and her past in the wilds — and finds out what it means to have someone care enough to find you. Lucy’s story was Sherri’s first novel, and one of our all-time favorite Under Radar Recommendations.

Sherri’s other novels include the 2009 Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award nominee, Sparrow, and last summer’s MG novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. This month we celebrate Sherri’s newest release, Flygirl, which hit bookstores just last week, and received a starred review from Booklist.


Passing. People of one ancestry or ethnic group being able to pass for another. Where does the phrase even come from? Once upon a time in the days of slavery, African American slaves who traveled away from their owners were required show passes to anyone who asked for them, to assure that they were on legitimate business. People who were not questioned, who were light enough, due to the blending of their genetics with those of the master’s family, were said to be able to “pass.” And from a long ago and ugly place we come up with a word that is alive and well today.

When Sherri told us the topic of her book, we gave a little twitch. Passing — is a loaded word, and not really a topic that gets talked about much in “polite society.” And certainly not in a novel for young adults!

Obviously, “passing” was a great big deal in the Jim Crow days, because African Americans were legally not allowed to do a whole bunch of things. People anxiously protected the status quo because most of the time, society prefers to tell us who we are, instead of letting us decide for themselves, so that there’s some kind of stability. The full force of the law came down on those who tried to rock the boat and choose for themselves. It could have cost Ida Mae her life to pass for white — but let me not give away any spoilers! Instead, let’s let Sherri talk!

When Tadmack and Aquafortis invited me back to Finding Wonderland, we exchanged more than a few emails geeking out over the shared backdrop of our latest novels—my Flygirl and Tadmack’s forthcoming Mare’s War are both set during World War II with African American heroines. We commiserated over the amount of research required, and what it was like to imagine the experience of a black woman in a Jim Crow world, never mind a segregated military. What we discovered is that we could go on for hours talking about race and identity. What it means to be a woman in a man’s world, what it means to be a black person in a white landscape. And it got me thinking about what our characters had to give up in order to be who they become during the course of our novels.

In Flygirl, Ida Mae Jones is a young black woman, the daughter of farmers, who learns to fly on her daddy’s crop duster. When the war comes, her brother enlists, and she finds herself, in a time of rationed gasoline, faced with the chance to fly again by volunteering for the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). This was a non-military program that trained women to fly Army planes in the United States—everything from towing targets for artillery training, to ferrying and testing new planes to be shipped overseas—all in order to “free a man to fight,” as the propaganda posters said. The catch is a big one, though—no blacks allowed. Ida Mae, thanks to her father’s side of the family, is light-skinned enough to pass for white. Her mother warns her against such a path—it could cost her her safety if she is found out, and her family if she wishes to stay on the “white” side of life. But Ida is young. She can only think of the immediate future, of a need to do something to help end the war. And so she leaves her mother, her grandfather, and her little brother behind. She changes the way she talks, the things she says, and she becomes, in all outward appearances, a new woman. A white woman.

T: This is such a great hook to the story – readers are interested already on many levels. Can she do it? Is it right to do it? Will she get caught? Perhaps for an African American reader, there’s an even greater drama. This is The Betrayal. This is the thing so many people are taught is The Great Evil. In stories passed down, in books, in old, old movies, this is what is known: you don’t “act White” you don’t “talk White;” you’ve got to “represent,” even if you have no clear idea what any of that is supposed to mean. The court of public opinion is in session, and if you’re not careful, you may find yourself held in contempt. But to choose to accept that part of her ethnicity that is not African American, and to choose to embrace that part… Wow. That is unimaginably heavy, indeed, at least for that time period.

Nowadays, we’re okay with letting, say, the sitting president of the country choose to identify with a specific part of his ethnic identity.


AF: This IS a great hook into a story with a provocative theme—one that has the potential of making readers of any ethnicity think more deeply about our history and about what a struggle it can be to have to make a deliberate choice about how we portray ourselves to the world.

In thinking about it further, I strongly feel we need stories like this, stories that help us not to forget the more painful parts of our racial history, or, to paraphrase what George Santayana said, we might risk repeating it in some less flagrant but still insidious way—especially at a time that, some opine, is somehow “post-racial.” The idea, maybe, is to go forward aware of our histories, regardless of whether we choose to “represent” or not, whether we identify with one history or another.

It’s easy to leave where you come from. Just jump a car, hop on a bus or an airplane with a one way ticket and never go back. It might be hard. You might miss it, but once you’re gone, you’re gone. How, on the other hand, do you leave behind who you come from? The fact that you have your mother’s smile, and her way of shaking a finger when you’re angry. The way you walk like your dad, shoulders squared against the world, but a roll in your step like you’re always on vacation. How do you change or deny the fact that you and your grandmother both love to dance? How do you forget that knock-knock jokes always make you and your little brother laugh? I don’t think you can leave those parts of yourself behind. To do so is an act of great violence. It’s suicide. Self-immolation. Or, more precisely, it is surgery. Sharp, exacting, and without anesthesia.

T: It’s erasing yourself.

AF: Yet don’t we all want to exist on our own terms, independent of that “who,” that “where,” at the same time that we’re part of them? How much of that self-separation is a mask, an illusion?

I suppose at first that the rewards this surgical removal of self gains you act as a painkiller of sorts. The euphoria you feel breezing past the “members only” signs. The knowledge that you sit at the big table now, that you are looking out of the windows of the same big houses you used to stare into so longingly. You have become the face on the movie screen. That might ease or mask your pain.

But it must wear off. Everything does. Can it console you in the middle of the night when all you want is your mother’s cool hand on your fevered brow, when you are sick and feel hopeless and alone? You have money now, position, power. You can hire a chef to make the same soup your mother would have made you. You can even pay someone to sing the same songs to you. But would the recipe, would the lyrics give you away? You have traded a child’s solace for your new position. And you can never trade it back. Not evenly. Not equally. You might lose your new role one day, but the old one is definitely gone forever.

T: Well, to a certain extent, every one of us who leaves home to grow up walks away from a place, a role, a set of clothes that has grown too small and too confining. We lose our place because we become too big for it – we allow ourselves to grow. But if we’ve chosen to grow in the direction of the dominant culture, that’s so different, because we have chosen. But does that always mean that there would be no place for us within the minority? I guess historically, the answer would be… yes.

AF: And what if even the less visible, but no less fundamental, choices of identity—your aspirations, your goals, the ideas you hold most dear—also separate you from where you came from? What if the assumptions and judgments of your family, of the culture you chose to leave, build an invisible wall just as much as the choices you’ve made?

On the flipside, how do you forgive someone who has traded your love for brighter lights? You might. If it’s your child, you might forgive them anything. If it’s your friend, you might take pity when they come home. But how do you forgive yourself, if you are the one who has crossed the line? I cannot imagine. And imagination is my trade.

T: The question few people ask is whether or not there needs to be forgiveness — or, whether or not there was any wrong done except in the legal sense, during the Jim Crow era. The sense of moral outrage that people had over this was, in part perhaps because there was a Line, a broad line between the races that strictly divided ‘have’ from ‘have not’ and ‘can’ from ‘cannot.’ Would people truly have issue with someone “acting White” or “choosing White” if there were not still social and monetary consequences for doing so? Does the privilege of the majority actually exist without the subjugation of the minority — I mean, isn’t deciding one group of people is better basically a game you play, based on who you decide not to like? It’s very much like a playground game, with no real right/wrong, rhyme/reason, and when the whistle blows, the reality of the game dissolves. Which brings up the question of if there is a kind of moral obligation for a person who can go either way to embrace the minority culture, or else be considered a bad person?

AF: Another question: If you embrace one of your cultures, does it automatically entail a denial of the other(s)? I believe we have a tendency to assume that’s still so, because in previous eras—e.g., in the Jim Crow era—it did mean that in a very real way. But now, the idea of the “dominant culture” is a little more complicated than simply “white culture.” Maybe that means there’s some room for variation, and room to keep what once had to be denied.

My mother passed away a little over a year ago, and my father passed just this last November. More than ever, I am constantly reminded of the pieces of them that make the whole of me. Why I read what I read, why I speak in the cadence I do. Who gave me that favorite sweater—what did they know about me that would make it my favorite? Why I feel about the world the way I do. Some of it is unique to me, I suppose, but so much of it is given to me by my parents, and their parents and so on. Our personalities are our inheritance. So, then, how do you walk away from who you come from when they are encoded in your DNA? If Ida Mae marries a white man, will she still worry that their first child’s skin will be dark like her mother’s, or her brothers’? Will the baby’s heritage show itself in the genes? Or just in a familiar smile, a way of laughing that twists Ida’s heart because it sounds like the brother she left behind?

To always be afraid that some of your “self” might be showing—what kind of a life is that? It’s a life so many people have lived, by choice or by necessity. I know at least two people who discovered only after their mothers’ funerals, that their mothers had been secretly Jewish. I know a boy whose oldest sister is in fact his mother. A charade that the entire family played for years. I only learned the truth when the boy was whining one day and called his sister “Mommy.” The middle sister, my friend, pulled me aside later to explain. And it was never mentioned again. And then there was the former acquaintance who believed himself to be securely in the closet, unable to remember the drunken cocktail hour during which he outed himself (in very unfortunate language) to his bosses. (It did not matter to them that he was gay, but the manner in which he told them… and the entire bar, left something to be desired.)

T: That is such a tough way to be outed — when you stumble and do it to yourself. A woman I knew had a child with a man of Mediterranean ancestry, and did not let that secret go until her son had children of his own, and her grandchildren had a genetic disorder common to people of Mediterranean ancestry… there really is no way to walk away from who you are, when it is encoded into your DNA. And even if the secret is mostly kept, when it is discovered, that same explosion occurs sometimes, as those who thought they had a right to know the secret of your true self feel ultimately betrayed.

What does it cost to be “sister” to your son or your nephew? What does it take to deny that you ever gave birth? What does it mean to hide your faith, your heritage because the people you move among, work with, the people you marry might despise you if they knew the truth? Clearly, for at least one of the above people, the pressure was too much, and the secret burst forth like steam erupting from an overheated engine. Imagine, then, the pain of holding the truth in for the rest of your life.

AF: It’s quite interesting living where I do, in a rather large town that still, in many ways, retains many small-town characteristics. There are still milieus where I keep quiet about the Pakistani heritage I get from my father—especially over the past eight years—and about the fact that, yes, he is a Muslim. And I feel like, on a day-to-day basis, I AM passing—for somebody Latina, maybe, or Mediterranean, or just somebody with a really dark tan. Being mixed does mean that sometimes, even if you don’t mean to, you’re hiding something about yourself simply because it’s not immediately apparent.

Now, some of you are thinking, “I could never do such a thing.” Those of us who believe we are too righteous, too proud, too much our selves to pass as anything other — what are we lying about? How are we passing?

Some days, I’ll walk down Rodeo Drive and put my nose in the air, walk into a shop like I own the place because, for all the shopkeepers know, I’m a millionaire. Sometimes I pretend I’m waiting for someone because I don’t want to look like I’m alone at the bus stop as the sun goes down. And once, in college, I allowed a friend to tell people I was in a recovering alcoholic because I didn’t want to drink at a party and everyone was so insistent that I should. It wasn’t my idea, but I didn’t deny it once it was said. Small transgressions? Maybe. Not with the weight of cost that racial, sexual or religious passing implies, perhaps, but it gives a taste. The frisson in the spine, the tiny terror of being found out. The fear of being discovered a fraud by either side of the line you’ve crossed. (The rehab rumor earned me whispers and sympathetic nods—and a sense of guilt. I did not drink in college—it would be like falling off the wagon and suddenly I found I had an example to set.)

Now imagine that that terror never leaves. That it grows, that it wraps itself around the base of your brain and calls it home to stay. It can’t unmake who you come from, only force you to suppress it time and time again. And then, I wonder, do you eventually suffocate? Or does only the part of you, the secret, the offending detail, die?

T: A difficult and poignant question, which reminds me of another question asked by the poet Langston Hughes. “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Keeping who we truly are a secret must cripple in so many, many other ways. Passing for reasons of race, gender, class, or ethnicity is historically depicted tragically in literature and film — and nowadays, it’s played in an exaggerated way for laughs, but few people explore it seriously, and even fewer in YA literature. Sherri, I really appreciate that you kind of climbed out there on a limb and wrote about this — from a historical perspective, which allows us to both consider our distance from the past, and to think about our identity within the context of our own times.

AF: Yes–and we’re honored that you chose to stop by and share your thoughts with us. Thanks!!

A discussion guide for Flygirl is available on Sherri’s website.

Continue on the Flygirl: Mostly Virtual Blog Tour!

Read Sherri’s funny interview at The Five Randoms,
Find out what she’s looking forward to this month at Bildungsroman,
Next Monday, stop by The YA YA YAs for a thoughtful Q&A, and then wind up the tour with Shelf Elf on the 13th.

After that, Sherri’s off to Hedgebrook, for two weeks with no phone, no worries, and someone else to make the coffee. Sounds like a well-earned writing retreat to us! Congratulations!